"Farewell Amor" is director Ekwa Msangi's auspicious, award-winning feature film debut, based on her 2016 short, "Farewell Meu Amor." The filmtakes a triptych approach to telling this immigrant drama of an Angolan family reuniting after 17 years. Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is first seen meeting his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) at the airport and bringing them to his Brooklyn apartment.
The film shows how each character individually adjusts to this new life together after so long apart. Walter, who drives a cab, still tries to find ways to see his mistress, Linda (Nana Mensah). Sylvia attends school and hopes to participate in a step contest as she loves to dance — despite the disapproval of her mother. Esther, who is devout, struggles with her faith and her family.
Msangi shows how each character changes over the course of the story, and her prismatic approach provides revealing details that illuminate the commonality of the characters. The filmmaker recently chatted via Zoom with Salon about "Farewell Amor."
I like how Esther and Sylvia both have one foot in the new land and one foot in their homeland, as they navigate a new life in America. What prompted you to tell this immigrant story?
I'm an immigrant, and I live in Brooklyn, so I'm surrounded by immigrants. I have rarely seen immigrant stories about the Africans that live in New York. I wanted to make space for that. I was inspired by my aunt and uncle, who are were married in Tanzania in the mid-'90s. My uncle got a student visa to come to the U.S., and he had every intention of bringing his wife and 5-month-old right behind them. But to this day, they have been stuck in an endless cycle of visa applications and rejections. Watching the way that it has changed them as individuals and changed the family in general. I was inspired by the [idea] – What if the visa was no longer an issue, and Auntie and cousin were able to come? Where does one begin after so many years apart? How do you repair a relationship like that?
Why did you take the triptych narrative approach you did, and tell each character's story from their own perspective?
I was fascinated by this idea that even though they are all experiencing this one event — a big celebration, the end! We reached the pinnacle, success! — it's not the end, it's just beginning. We have a lot of expectations and assumptions about what that means for them. They should be happy and relieved. It's not so much about problems they have, or the challenges they face, it's that they are all experiencing this great event from very different perspectives. They are each having a unique experience of the one shared event. I wanted to explore each because each of them was so interesting to me. I decided that it would be interesting to experience each of their stories.
What decisions did you make regarding which dramatic moments to include and overlap?
I knew the airport was definitely an overlapping point, it was a ground zero to come back to — to center the audience and to place us back to everyone's beginning and as a shared experience. I wanted to not necessarily show the most monumental moments in the story, but the mundane things, and how things can be misinterpreted or misunderstood; what I thought was a wonderful, happy thing to say, you took as something else. But also trying to make sure I am moving the story forward and giving new information when you see it from another perspective. That was the challenge — so as to better understand the characters and know more about them. Because we can only say so much, we tried to be as economical as possible.
Each character has a secret, or double life. Can you talk about creating that, and why being together forces the family members to hide, not reveal, more of themselves?
To me, it was a kind of politeness. Here we are, we are so joyous and excited to be together, and we've had to get rid of all of these things, these secrets and double lives to be here and be together — and that's what they want, or at least have been working towards, for many, many years. Because it has been so long, that want has changed. You forget why you wanted it in the first place. Or you question it.
Each of them has developed these crutches to survive the separation, and they find there is not enough space for them and their crutch, so they have to get rid of that — and that's a scary thing to do. Each character is terrified to be without a crutch that they developed and that has served them well. It requires them to turn into a different person. That's a question we all face in our lives. You get into a stride at work and you're good at it, and you get to the point where you might have to let go of it and you question your identity. Each of the characters question their identity and whether it is safe to show themselves to each other in the way they'd like to. When there has been so much anticipation for this reunion, you can't come together and say, "This is a bad idea, I'm going back." It has to work. Too many people have prayed for this, and put in time and money; you have to make it work. Even if you are having second thoughts and doubts, you are not really allowed to say that out loud.
There are themes of repentance and forgiveness as well as duty and freedom. What did you learn about how families like Walter's when they reunite and rebuild after so much time apart?
A lot of it is my imagination, and the case of my aunt and uncle, they have not reunited. I don't know what that would be like. My closest comparison is a long-distance relationship. You talk every day and say, "I love you/I love you, too." But when you get together, "You're not as cute as I thought." Repentance and forgiveness, for something that has been so hard, and has taken so long, they did stay the course — but it's not the picture-perfect family dynamic.
They all had to lean on someone else in order to get here, and so there's a level of forgiveness of each other, but also of themselves. They are different people, and that's human nature. We do change as people over time. A lot of times, people get disappointed by that: You're not the person I married! We all sort of evolve based on our lives, sometimes we have to learn to forgive ourselves especially if it might disappoint someone you care about.
Dance, of course, is important for all of the characters. Why did you choose dance as the form of self-expression for the characters?
For African-heritage people it's such an automatic thing, and dance is so important for so many. There are strains in our DNA in movement and how we respond to movement, and it's very deeply spiritual, and there is messaging carried in music. It's hard to talk about African-heritage people without including some form of dance or music. It's how we speak, it's how we move, it's how we talk. It's a part of life. But with these particular dances I chose to feature in the film — Kizomba, which Walter dances with Linda, it's a couple's dance. It's very sensual and beautiful. Unlike other couple's dances, it does not have a regular foot pattern, and so, in order to perform Kizomba, the leader is responding to the music and whoever is dancing with them has to have a connection with the leader. If you don't have that connection, you can't dance. It was an interesting metaphor for a relationship and for this couple that used to be in step, literally.
For Kuduro, which is the style Sylvia dances to, it is also an Angolan dance. It is a young, hip and energetic. It looks like a teenage hip-hop style. But it is an important platform for young people to be able to express themselves in a society where they don't have a lot of spaces to express themselves and say how they feel. For a young African girl, who doesn't have the permission to have a tantrum, or stomp out, or curse her parents, this would be a way for her to dance and move or use music to express or heal or work through her emotions. Esther's dance is religious. I wanted to use dance and music as a third language for us to get a glimpse of the character's inner lives.
Walter observes, "This country is very hard for Black people, especially for foreigners." I appreciate that observation, but there is very little discussion of race in the film, and almost no white people in the film. Can you talk about depicting race?
Their world is Brooklyn, which is very diverse. It's not that I wrote white people out of the script, but I wanted a film where the African people are at center of story. They are not explaining their presence, or having their presence be because of or in relation to someone else. There are not there because the foreigner is trying to save them. I wanted to just focus on this family, and their world, and who would be in it. Even in casting, we thought should we have more white people? Is this weird?
The other thing is that Esther and Sylvia are coming from Africa. Here in the U.S., you can't go a day without thinking about race, or referring to it in some way, without being affected by it in some way. It is just a part of the air we breathe. And it takes up a lot of brain space. Am I offending? Should I say it this way? Should I speak differently? You are navigating your space all the time. In Africa, you can choose to engage with people of another race. But for the most part, it's not something people think about all the time. Of course, our lives are impacted by colonialism. A lot of foreigners who come to the U.S. — at least African foreigners — we don't come here thinking about race. But you learn how important race and racism is here, and it's a little bit of a weird thing. That's the information Walter is trying to impart to her in as gentle a way as possible. It's different here, and it can be really hard. But just be you.
What can you say about the use of space in the film? The apartment is rather claustrophobic, but there is a stifling, oppressive atmosphere throughout the film, which is very effective. It mirrors the characters discomfort.
I think that's one of the things when you learn about New York and you watch "MTV Cribs," or whatever it is when you look at that as a guiding light about coming to New York. No one talks about our tiny-ass apartments, or that you can hear everything neighbors are doing. It's a detail that catches people by surprise — how tight and close everything is. And for Esther and Sylvia's characters, the idea of coming to America, life should be bigger, wider, better, and more expansive. And they probably came from a lot of space. It's a different environment in Africa; they weren't sardined in. This is not what I was expecting to experience here. But also, this idea of a family that has been thousands of miles apart and longing to be close — that will solve all our problems. Now that we really are physically close to one another, is our life better now that we live in same space? But their minds are all somewhere else. Our physical bodies are here, but our minds and our spirits haven't quite arrived yet.
"Farewell Amor" is available in theaters and on digital and VOD platforms on Friday, Dec. 11.